Now that we’ve all emerged from our holiday stupor to discover There Is In Fact A Title Race, I want to lure you to the other end of the table. It’s my favourite place for football, and as usual, there’s a lot going on. At the moment it looks like six teams fighting for three survival spots, and this weekend we get not one but two six-pointers, Cardiff City v Huddersfield and Burnley v Fulham.
The former is pretty straightforward. Both sides were widespread picks to go down. Goal-starved Huddersfield are sinking fast, and only a win will do. Cardiff are Cardiffing along, getting most of their points at home against teams at their level, and if they can keep doing it, they might just survive.
It’s the second match which really intrigues. Both clubs started the season expecting/hoping to be safe in mid-table, and both found out you have to be able to defend to get there. At the moment Burnley are four points ahead of Fulham, which isn’t much – but right now these are teams in very different situations. The best way to see this is to cast your mind back a couple of weeks to Round 20, the weekend before the New Year.
Let’s go first to Craven Cottage, where Fulham were getting ready to host Huddersfield. This was a match between the two bottom teams in the league, a gilt-edged six-pointer if there ever was one. The Terriers had lost their last six league matches, scoring only four goals in the process. They had scored only 12 goals all season. The Cottagers were coming off two draws, one of which was a near-win against Wolves. They had a little momentum, certainly more than their opponents. This might literally be their best chance for three points the entire rest of the season.
Yet Claudio Ranieri played it safe. He played it safer than the safest thing that has ever been safe. First of all, he started three centre-halves. All right, that’s the system he’d been playing, and it had produced a few results. Before he arrived, the Cottagers hadn’t been playing defence at all. So maybe we can’t be too harsh there, even though playing three at the back against Huddersfield is like wearing both a belt and braces to keep your pants up. (In the movie Once Upon A Time In The West, Henry Fonda shot a man partly for that reason.)
It gets worse, though. In the first half, astonishingly, Fulham just sat back and let Huddersfield have the ball. This despite the fact that their three best counter-attacking players (Ryan Sessegnon, Aboubakar Kamara, André Schürrle) were on the bench. Ranieri got what he wanted: despite almost two-thirds of the possession, the Terriers didn’t have a good scoring chance all half. But neither did Fulham.
To no one’s surprise, in the second half the Cottagers cut loose, and dominated. Huddersfield had recorded six shots in the first half, but didn’t get another until the 87th minute, by which time the hosts had nine more. But Jonas Lössl had made a couple of decent saves, including a penalty, and it was still 0-0. It stayed that way until the 91st minute, when out of nothing Sessegnon created a chance and Aleksandar Mitrovič finished through Lössl’s legs. Fulham won 1-0.
The strategy had worked, barely. But what does it say when in an absolute must-win match, the manager decided to protect his defence against by far the lowest scorers in the league? Seven matches in charge, and things hadn’t improved enough to take the game to the ideal opposition?
Former footballer comes under fire after ridiculing Andy Murray’s tearful press conference – Tennis365
Now let’s switch to Turf Moor, where Burnley were hosting West Ham. The Hammers were rolling under Manuel Pellegrini, winning five of their last six and scoring from everywhere on the pitch. Meanwhile the Clarets had picked up only four points in their last 11 matches, and continued to leak goals alarmingly. In fact, in the previous three matches Sean Dyche had abandoned his beloved back four and started five at the back, to no avail.
You know what’s coming. Whereas Ranieri had played it as conservatively as possible, Dyche went the opposite route. He returned to a back four and had his men try to take charge of the action. What ensued was the most shocking match of the entire Premier League season. (I know. I’ve seen them all.)
It wasn’t so much the result, 2-0 to Burnley. Those things happen. It was the manner of the victory, or defeat if you take it from the West Ham side. To do it justice you need something like Monty Python’s immortal Dead Parrot Sketch. West Ham were demised. They were no more. They had ceased to be. They had expired and gone to meet their maker. It was that bad.
And it was that good from Burnley’s point of view. A brilliant Ashley Westwood ran the midfield and a similarly brilliant Ashley Barnes took control up front. Goals from Chris Wood and youngster Dwight McNeil had the Clarets up by two in the 34th minute, and only profligate finishing and fine work from Lukasz Fabianski kept the scoreline respectable. The xG on the afternoon finished at 2.90 to 0.66 – for comparison, that’s midway between what Liverpool did to Cardiff and what Liverpool did to Newcastle. And Burnley’s defence, so desperately poor beforehand? The keeper had only one difficult save, in the 88th minute.
That keeper was Tom Heaton. For some time it had been apparent that the defence wasn’t functioning with Joe Hart behind them, and while Hart can’t take all of the blame, Heaton and Nick Pope had produced better results. Pope remains injured, but the switch to Heaton was a decisive move to change the equation, and the result, as we’ve seen, was dramatic.
So Round 20 showed us two managers, one who took the timid route and one who went bold. Both won, but with a huge difference in message: Fulham still struggling for defensive stability, Burnley back to the basics with a vengeance.
Round 21 didn’t do anything to change the memo. Fulham went to the Emirates and, with nothing to lose, went straight at the weak Arsenal defence. They created two good early chances but couldn’t finish, then superior quality took over. Arsenal led 1-0 at half, 2-0 at the hour, and ran out 4-1 winners. Burnley went to Huddersfield and gave up the first goal – but Wood equalised seven minutes later, and soon afterwards Christopher Schindler got a second yellow. The Clarets kept attacking, and Barnes netted the winner in the 74th minute.
All of which means this game is something of a crossroads, for both sides. Burnley have considerable momentum, and a win would both give them breathing space and show they’re on the right track to survive. A loss could drop them back in the slog, with their next two matches away to Watford and Manchester United. For Fulham, already four points from safety, a loss to a fellow relegation candidate could be near-disaster, both pointwise and psychologically. A win, particularly if they hold Burnley to at most one goal, would mean that just maybe Ranieri’s work is starting to bear fruit. We make him our manager to watch this weekend for a reason.
Tactics? Burnley will be Burnley, 4-4-2 with some pressing and some long-ball, allowing the opponent their share of shots. Fulham will play three centre-halves against Burnley’s two strikers, and…well, I don’t know. If Ranieri didn’t go for broke home to Huddersfield, he’s unlikely to do so away to Burnley. But a win would be much much better than a draw.
That’s the set-up for the most fascinating match of the weekend. Yes, I know Manchester United travel to Wembley, and Manchester City have a tricky match against Wolves. But this one’s all about staying up, and you’ll never ever convince me that relegation football isn’t the most exciting. So up and at ‘em, Clarets and Cottagers. You’re great old clubs in a great old race, and tomorrow I’m your biggest fan.